Orlando is a very complex and sophisticated film based on a very complex and sophisticated book which I haven’t read. For this and other reasons I’m sure I missed a great deal when I watched it, but I was thoroughly entertained. It has a very post-modern, nineties sheen to it (it was released in 1992), foregrounding its artifice throughout, with Tilda Swinton in the starring role repeatedly addressing the camera directly. It is, in brief, the story of the eponymous English nobleman who, for reasons which are never clearly explained, undergoes a spontaneous transformation of sex and gender, and is immortal. The book, by Virginia Woolf, seems to have been an extended ribbing of her friend and lover Vita Sackville-West. satirising her both for her romantic notions of life, and for her lack of talent as a writer, but as a story it goes far beyond that, and is clearly one of the first well-known works in English to question and undermine the assumed naturalness of social gender—if it is well represented in Sally Potter’s film, it also embodies a much more subtle and fluid notion of gender than was common in the queer literature of the period (compared to the heavy-handed approach taken by Radclyffe Hall in The Well Of Loneliness, for example). It was considered unadaptable by most of the industry figures that Potter first pitched it to, but as she filmed it, it seems a perfect fit for the increasingly overt and self-aware queer culture of the late 1980s, when it was in development. It’s a beautiful film, all sets, costumes and well-crafted speeches, that makes few concessions to naturalism. Perhaps the best example of Potter’s approach is her inspired decision to cast Quentin Crisp as Queen Elizabeth I. Crisp’s part is out of the way early, and serves as a kind of manifesto: once he’s had his screen time the audience is primed to expect a sequence of set pieces, in which the mise-en-scène is as important a narrative element as the dialogue or the plot. I didn’t have any particularly profound thoughts about this film, but I found it an absolute feast aesthetically, as much for its intellectually slick approach to storytelling as for its gorgeous visual character. It’s the kind of work whose meanings should not be sought as some kind of subsurface vein which its pretty camera-work and set design serve to decorate, or to offer clues towards. Instead, like the improvised ornaments on some baroque piano sonatas, those visual and dramatic adornments are largely the point: the film’s heart is not deep within it, but on its sleeve, in the shiny surface where sympathetic viewers can see their own reflections. In those reflections, surface is depth.
I really enjoyed this film at the time. Bit of trivia, I bumped into free improv jazz sax master Lol Coxhill at Kings Cross station years ago and said “hello”. He talked to me casually as if we knew each other and told me he had just spent a very pleasant weekend in the country (Suffolk / Norfolk?) filming in Sally Potter’s new film. He said it was just a bit of fun he had a “bit part as a butler”. It was only when I watched the film and spotted him that I realised what he was on about!
What a fantastic story! I didn’t spot him, I’ll have to re-watch it now …